By John Shade
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!
Retake the falling snow: each drifting flake
Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque,
A dull dark white against the day’s pale white
And abstract larches in the neutral light.
And then the gradual and dual blue
As night unites the viewer and the view,
And in the morning, diamonds of frost
Express amazement: Whose spurred feet have crossed
From left to right the blank page of the road?
Reading from left to right in winter’s code:
A dot, an arrow pointing back; repeat:
Dot, arrow pointing back . . . A pheasant’s feet!
Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,
Finding your China right behind my house.
Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose
Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes?
All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs. Whenever I’d permit,
Or, with a silent shiver, order it,
Whatever in my field of vision dwelt—
An indoor scene, hickory leaves, the svelte
Stilettos of a frozen stillicide—
Was printed on my eyelids’ nether side
Where it would tarry for an hour or two,
And while this lasted all I had to do
Was close my eyes to reproduce the leaves,
Or indoor scene, or trophies of the eaves.
I cannot understand why from the lake
I could make out our front porch when I’d take
Lake Road to school, whilst now, although no tree
Has intervened, I look but fail to see
Even the roof. Maybe some quirk in space
Has caused a fold or furrow to displace
The fragile vista, the frame house between
Goldworth and Wordsmith on its square of green.
I had a favorite young shagbark there
With ample dark jade leaves and a black, spare,
Vermiculated trunk. The setting sun
Bronzed the black bark, around which, like undone
Garlands, the shadows of the foliage fell.
It is now stout and rough; it has done well.
White butterflies turn lavender as they
Pass through its shade where gently seems to sway
The phantom of my little daughter’s swing.
The house itself is much the same. One wing
We’ve had revamped. There’s a solarium. There’s
A picture window flanked with fancy chairs.
TV’s huge paperclip now shines instead
Of the stiff vane so often visited
By the naïve, the gauzy mockingbird
Retelling all the programs she had heard;
Switching from chippo-chippo to a clear
To-wee, to-wee; then rasping out: come here,
Come here, come herrr’; flitting her tail aloft,
Or gracefully indulging in a soft
Upward hop-flop, and instantly (to-wee!)
Returning to her perch—the new TV.
I was an infant when my parents died.
They both were ornithologists. I’ve tried
So often to evoke them that today
I have a thousand parents. Sadly they
Dissolve in their own virtues and recede,
But certain words, chance words I hear or read,
Such as “bad heart” always to him refer,
And “cancer of the pancreas” to her.
A preterist: one who collects cold nests.
Here was my bedroom, now reserved for guests.
Here, tucked away by the Canadian maid,
I listened to the buzz downstairs and prayed
For everybody to be always well,
Uncles and aunts, the maid, her niece Adèle,
Who’d seen the Pope, people in books, and God.
I was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud,
A poet and a painter with a taste
For realistic objects interlaced
With grotesque growths and images of doom.
She lived to hear the next babe cry. Her room
We’ve kept intact. Its trivia create
A still life in her style: the paperweight
Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,
The verse open at the Index (Moon,
Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,
The human skull; and from the local Star
A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4
On Chapman’s Homer, thumbtacked to the door.
My God died young. Theolatry I found
Degrading, and its premises, unsound.
No free man needs a God; but was I free?
How fully I felt nature glued to me
And how my childish palate loved the taste
Half-fish, half-honey, of that golden paste!
My picture book was at an early age
The painted parchment papering our cage:
Mauve rings around the moon; blood-orange sun;
Twinned Iris; and that rare phenomenon
The iridule—when, beautiful and strange,
In a bright sky above a mountain range
One opal cloudlet in an oval form
Reflects the rainbow of a thunderstorm
Which in a distant valley has been staged—
For we are most artistically caged.
And there’s the wall of sound: the nightly wall
Raised by a trillion crickets in the fall.
Impenetrable! Halfway up the hill
I’d pause in thrall of their delirious trill.
That’s Dr. Sutton’s light. That’s the Great Bear.
A thousand years ago five minutes were
Equal to forty ounces of fine sand.
Outstare the stars. Infinite foretime and
Infinite aftertime: above your head
They close like giant wings, and you are dead.
The regular vulgarian, I daresay,
Is happier: He sees the Milky Way
Only when making water. Then as now
I walked at my own risk: whipped by the bough,
Tripped by the stump. Asthmatic, lame and fat,
I never bounced a ball or swung a bat.
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By feigned remoteness in the windowpane.
I had a brain, five senses (one unique),
But otherwise I was a cloutish freak.
In sleeping dreams I played with other chaps
But really envied nothing—save perhaps
The miracle of a lemniscate left
Upon wet sand by nonchalantly deft
…………………..A thread of subtle pain,
Tugged at by playful death, released again,
But always present, ran through me. One day,
When I’d just turned eleven, as I lay
Prone on the floor and watched a clockwork toy—
A tin wheelbarrow pushed by a tin boy—
Bypass chair legs and stray beneath the bed,
There was a sudden sunburst in my head.
And then black night. That blackness was sublime.
I felt distributed through space and time:
One foot upon a mountaintop, one hand
Under the pebbles of a panting strand,
One ear in Italy, one eye in Spain,
In caves, my blood, and in the stars, my brain.
There were dull throbs in my Triassic; green
Optical spots in Upper Pleistocene,
An icy shiver down my Age of Stone,
And all tomorrows in my funny bone.
During one winter every afternoon
I’d sink into that momentary swoon.
And then it ceased. Its memory grew dim.
My health improved. I even learned to swim.
But like some little lad forced by a wench
With his pure tongue her abject thirst to quench,
I was corrupted, terrified, allured,
And though old Doctor Colt pronounced me cured
Of what, he said, were mainly growing pains,
The wonder lingers and the shame remains.
There was a time in my demented youth
When somehow I suspected that the truth
About survival after death was known
To every human being: I alone
Knew nothing, and a great conspiracy
Of books and people hid the truth from me.
There was the day when I began to doubt
Man’s sanity: How could he live without
Knowing for sure what dawn, what death, what doom
Awaited consciousness beyond the tomb?
And finally there was the sleepless night
When I decided to explore and fight
The foul, the inadmissible abyss,
Devoting all my twisted life to this
One task. Today I’m sixty-one. Waxwings
Are berry-pecking. A cicada sings.
The little scissors I am holding are
A dazzling synthesis of sun and star.
I stand before the window and I pare
My fingernails and vaguely am aware
Of certain flinching likenesses: the thumb,
Our grocer’s son; the index, lean and glum
College astronomer Starover Blue;
The middle fellow, a tall priest I knew;
The feminine fourth finger, an old flirt;
And little pinky clinging to her skirt.
And I make mouths as I snip off the thin
Strips of what Aunt Maud used to call “scarf-skin.”
Maud Shade was eighty when a sudden hush
Fell on her life. We saw the angry flush
And torsion of paralysis assail
Her noble cheek. We moved her to Pinedale,
Famed for its sanitarium. There she’d sit
In the glassed sun and watch the fly that lit
Upon her dress and then upon her wrist.
Her mind kept fading in the growing mist.
She still could speak. She paused, and groped, and found
What seemed at first a serviceable sound,
But from adjacent cells impostors took
The place of words she needed, and her look
Spelt imploration as she sought in vain
To reason with the monsters in her brain.
What moment in the gradual decay
Does resurrection choose? What year? What day?
Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?
Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism: other men die; but I
Am not another; therefore I’ll not die.
Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,
A singing in the ears. In this hive I’m
Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had
Been able to imagine life, what mad,
Impossible, unutterably weird,
Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!
So why join in the vulgar laughter? Why
Scorn a hereafter none can verify:
The Turk’s delight, the future lyres, the talks
With Socrates and Proust in cypress walks,
The seraph with his six flamingo wings,
And Flemish hells with porcupines and things?
It isn’t that we dream too wild a dream:
The trouble is we do not make it seem
Sufficiently unlikely; for the most
We can think up is a domestic ghost.
How ludicrous these efforts to translate
Into one’s private tongue a public fate!
Instead of poetry divinely terse,
Disjointed notes, Insomnia’s mean verse!
Life is a message scribbled in the dark.
………………….Espied on a pine’s bark,
As we were walking home the day she died,
An empty emerald case, squat and frog-eyed,
Hugging the trunk; and its companion piece,
A gum-logged ant.
…………………………That Englishman in Nice,
A proud and happy linguist: je nourris
Les pauvres cigales—meaning that he
Fed the poor sea gulls!
………………………………Lafontaine was wrong;
Dead is the mandible, alive the song.
And so I pare my nails, and muse, and hear
Your steps upstairs, and all is right, my dear.
Sybil, throughout our high-school days I knew
Your loveliness, but fell in love with you
During an outing of the senior class
To New Wye Falls. We luncheoned on damp grass.
Our teacher of geology discussed
The cataract. Its roar and rainbow dust
Made the tame park romantic. I reclined
In April’s haze immediately behind
Your slender back and watched your neat small head
Bend to one side. One palm with fingers spread,
Between a star of trillium and a stone,
Pressed on the turf. A little phalange bone
Kept twitching. Then you turned and offered me
A thimbleful of bright metallic tea.
Your profile has not changed. The glistening teeth
Biting the careful lip; the shade beneath
The eyes from the long lashes; the peach down
Rimming the cheekbone; the dark silky brown
Of hair brushed up from temple and from nape;
The very naked beck; the Persian shape
Of nose and eyebrow, you have kept it all—
And on still nights we hear the waterfall.
Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed,
My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest
My Admirable butterfly! Explain
How could you, in the gloam of Lilac Lane,
Have let uncouth, hysterical John Shade
Blubber your face, and ear, and shoulder blade?
We have been married forty years. At least
Four thousand times your pillow has been creased
By our two heads. Four hundred thousand times
The tall clock with the hoarse Westminster chimes
Has marked our common hour. How many more
Free calendars shall grace the kitchen door?
I love you when you’re standing on the lawn
Peering at something in a tree: “It’s gone.
It was so small. It might come back” (all this
Voiced in a whisper softer than a kiss).
I love you when you call me to admire
A jet’s pink trail above the sunset fire.
I love you when you’re humming as you pack
A suitcase or the farcical car sack
With round-trip zipper. And I love you most
When with a pensive nod you greet her ghost
And hold her first toy on your palm, or look
At a postcard from her, found in a book.
She might have been you, me, or some quaint blend:
Nature chose me so as to wrench and rend
Your heart and mine. At first we’d smile and say:
“All little girls are plump” or “Jim McVey
(The family oculist) will cure that slight
Squint in not time.” And later: “She’ll be quite
Pretty, you know”; and, trying to assuage
The swelling torment: “That’s the awkward age.”
“She should take riding lessons,” you would say
(Your eyes and mine not meeting). “She should play
Tennis, or badminton. Less starch, more fruit!
She may not be a beauty, but she’s cute.”
It was no use, no use. The prizes won
In French and history, no doubt, were fun;
At Christmas parties games were rough, no doubt,
And one shy little guest might be left out;
But let’s be fair: while children of her age
Were cast as elves and fairies on the stage
That she‘d helped paint for the school pantomime,
My gentle girl appeared as Mother Time,
A bent charwoman with a slop pail and broom,
And like a fool I sobbed in the men’s room.
Another winter was scraped-scooped away.
The Toothwart White haunted our woods in May.
Summer was power-mowed, and autumn, burned.
Alas, the dingy cygnet never turned
Into a wood duck. And again your voice:
“But this is prejudice! You should rejoice
That she is innocent. Why overstress
The physical? She wants to look a mess.
Virgins have written some resplendent books.
Lovemaking is not everything. Good looks
Are not that indispensable!” And still
Old Pan would call from every painted hill,
And still the demons of our pity spoke:
No lips would share the lipstick of her smoke;
The telephone that rang before a ball
Every two minutes in Sorosa Hall
For her would never ring; and, with a great
Screeching of tires on gravel, to the gate
Out of the lacquered night, a white-scarfed beau
Would never come for her; she’d never go,
A dream of gauze and jasmine, to that dance.
We sent her, though, to a château in France.
And she returned in tears, with new defeats,
New miseries. On days when all the streets
Of College Town led to the game, she’d sit
On the library steps, and read or knit;
Mostly alone she’d be, or with that nice
Frail roommate, now a nun; and, once or twice,
With a Korean boy who took my course.
She had strange fears, strange fantasies, strange force
Of character—as when she spent three nights
Investigating certain sounds and lights
In an old barn. She twisted words: pot, top
Spider, redips. And “powder” was “red wop.”
She called you a didactic katydid.
She hardly ever smiled, and when she did,
It was a sign of pain. She’d criticize
Ferociously our projects, and with eyes
Expressionless sit on her tumbled bed
Spreading her swollen feet, scratching her head
With psoriatic fingernails, and moan,
Murmuring dreadful words in monotone.
She was my darling: difficult, morose—
But still my darling. You remember those
Almost unruffled evenings when we played
Mah-jongg, or she tried on your furs, which made
Her almost fetching; and the mirrors smiled,
The lights were merciful, the shadows mild.
Sometimes I’d help her with a Latin text,
Or she’d be reading in her bedroom, next
To my fluorescent lair, and you would be
In your own study, twice removed from me,
And I would hear both voices now and then:
“Mother, what’s grimpen?” “What is what?”
Pause, and your guarded scholium. Then again:
“Mother, what’s chtonic?” That, too, you’d explain,
Appending: “Would you like a tangerine?”
“No. Yes. And what does sempiternal mean?”
You’d hesitate. And lustily I’d roar
The answer from my desk through the closed door.
It does not matter what it was she read
(some phony modern poem that was said
In English Lit to be a document
“Engazhay and compelling”—what this meant
Nobody cared); the point is that the three
Chambers, then bound by you and her and me,
Now form a tryptich or a three-act play
In which portrayed events forever stay.
I think she always nursed a small mad hope.
I’d finished recently my book on Pope.
Jane Dean, my typist, offered her one day
To meet Pete Dean, a cousin. Jane’s fiancé
Would then take all of them in his new car
A score of miles to a Hawaiian bar.
The boy was picked up at a quarter past
Eight in New Wye. Sleet glazed the roads. At last
They found the place—when suddenly Pete Dean
Clutching his brow exclaimed that he had clean
Forgotten an appointment with a chum
Who’d land in jail if he, Pete, did not come,
Et cetera. She said she understood.
After he’d gone the three young people stood
Before the azure entrance for awhile.
Puddles were neon-barred; and with a smile
She said she be de trop, she’d much prefer
Just going home. Her friends escorted her
To the bus stop and left; but she, instead
Of riding home, got off at Lochanhead.
You scrutinized your wrist: “It’s eight fifteen.
[And here time forked.] I’ll turn it on.” The screen
In its blank broth evolved a lifelike blur,
And music welled.
………………………..He took one look at her,
And shot a death ray at well-meaning Jane.
A male hand traced from Florida to Maine
The curving arrows of Aeolian wars.
You said that later a quartet of bores,
Two writers and two critics, would debate
The Cause of Poetry on Channel 8.
A nymph came pirouetting, under white
Rotating petals, in a vernal rite
To kneel before an altar in a wood
Where various articles of toilet stood.
I went upstairs and read a galley proof,
And heard the wind roll marbles on the roof.
“See the blind beggar dance, the cripple sing”
Has unmistakably the vulgar ring
Of its preposterous age. Then came your call,
My tender mockingbird, up from the hall.
I was in time to overhear brief fame
And have a cup of tea with you: my name
Was mentioned twice, as usual just behind
(one oozy footstep) Frost.
………………………………….“Sure you don’t mind?
I’ll catch the Exton plane, because you know
If I don’t come by midnight with the dough—”
And then there was a kind of travelog:
A host narrator took us through the fog
Of a March night, where headlights from afar
Approached and grew like a dilating star,
To the green, indigo and tawny sea
Which we had visited in thirty-three,
Nine months before her birth. Now it was all
Pepper-and-salt, and hardly could recall
That first long ramble, the relentless light,
The flocks of sails (one blue among the white
Clashed queerly with the sea, and two were red),
The man in the old blazer, crumbing bread,
The crowding gulls insufferably loud,
And one dark pigeon waddling in the crowd.
“Was that the phone?” You listened at the door.
Nothing. Picked up the program from the floor.
More headlights in the fog. There was no sense
In window-rubbing: only some white fence
And the reflector poles passed by unmasked.
“Are we quite sure she’s acting right?” you asked.
“It’s technically a blind date, of course.
Well, shall we try the preview of Remorse?”
And we allowed, in all tranquility,
The famous film to spread its charmed marquee;
The famous face flowed in, fair and inane:
The parted lips, the swimming eyes, the grain
Of beauty on the cheek, odd gallicism,
And the soft form dissolving in the prism
Of corporate desire.
………………………….“I think,” she said,
“I’ll get off here.” “It’s only Lochanhead.”
“Yes, that’s okay.” Gripping the stang, she peered
At ghostly trees. Bus stopped. Bus disappeared.
Thunder above the Jungle. “No, not that!”
Pat Pink, our guest (antiatomic chat).
Eleven struck. You sighed. “Well, I’m afraid
There’s nothing else of interest.” You played
Network roulette: the dial turned and trk’ed.
Commercials were beheaded. Faces flicked.
An open mouth in midsong was struck out.
An imbecile with sideburns was about
To use his gun, but you were much too quick.
A jovial Negro raised his trumpet. Trk.
Your ruby ring made life and laid the law.
Oh, switch it off! And as life snapped we saw
A pinhead light dwindle and die in black
………….Out of his lakeside shack
A watchman, Father Time, all gray and bent,
Emerged with his uneasy dog and went
Along the reedy bank. He came too late.
You gently yawned and stacked away your plate.
We heard the wind. We heard it rush and throw
Twigs at the windowpane. Phone ringing? No.
I helped you with the dishes. The tall clock
Kept on demolishing young root, old rock.
“Midnight,” you said. What’s midnight to the young?
And suddenly a festive blaze was flung
Across five cedars, snowpatches showed,
And a patrol car on our bumpy road
Came to a crunching stop. Retake, retake!
People have thought she tried to cross the lake
At Lochan Neck where zesty skaters crossed
From Exe to Wye on days of special frost.
Others supposed she might have lost her way
By turning left from Bridgeroad; and some say
She took her poor young life. I know. You know.
It was a night of thaw, a night of blow,
With great excitement in the air. Black spring
Stood just around the corner, shivering
In the wet starlight and on the wet ground.
The lake lay in the mist, its ice half drowned.
A blurry shape stepped off the reedy bank
Into a crackling, gulping swamp, and sank.
L’if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:
The grand potato.
……………………….I.P.H., a lay
Institute (I) of Preparation (P)
For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we
Called it—big if!—engaged me for one term
To speak on death (“to lecture on the Worm,”
Wrote President McAber).
…………………………………..You and I,
And she, then a mere tot, moved from New Wye
To Yewshade, in another, higher state.
I love great mountains. From the iron gate
Of the ramshackle house we rented there
One saw a snowy form, so far, so fair,
That one could only fetch a sigh, as if
It might assist assimilation.
Was a larvorium and a violet:
A grave in Reason’s early spring. And yet
It missed the gist of the whole thing; it missed
What mostly interests the preterist;
For we die every day; oblivion thrives
Not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives,
And our best yesterdays are now foul piles
Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files.
I’m ready to become a floweret
Or a fat fly, but never, to forget.
And I’ll turn down eternity unless
The melancholy and the tenderness
Of mortal life; the passion and the pain;
The claret taillight of that dwindling plane
Off Hesperus; your gesture of dismay
On running out of cigarettes; the way
You smile at dogs; the trail of silver slime
Snails leaves on flagstones; this good ink, this rhyme,
This index card, this slender rubber band
Which always forms, when dropped, an ampersand,
Are found in Heaven by the newlydead
Stored in its strongholds through the years.
The Institute assumed it might be wise
Not to expect too much of paradise:
What if there’s nobody to say hullo
To the newcomer, no reception, no
Indoctrination? What if you are tossed
Into a boundless void, your bearings lost,
Your spirit stripped and utterly alone,
Your task unfinished, your despair unknown,
Your body just beginning to putresce,
A non-undressable in morning dress,
Your widow lying prone on a firm bed,
Herself a blur in your dissolving head!
While snubbing gods, including the big G,
Iph borrowed some peripheral debris
From mystic visions; and it offered tips
(The amber spectacles for life’s eclipse)—
How not to panic when you’re made a ghost:
Sidle and slide, choose a smooth surd, and coast,
Meet solid bodies and glissade right through,
Or let a person circulate through you.
How to locate in blackness, with a gasp,
Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp.
How to keep sane in spiral types of space.
Precautions to be taken in the case
Of freak reincarnation: what to do
On suddenly discovering that you
Are now a young and vulnerable toad
Plump in the middle of a busy road,
Or a bear cub beneath a burning pine,
Or a book mite in a revived divine.
Time means succession, and succession, change:
Hence timelessness is bound to disarrange
Schedules of sentiment. We give advice
To widower. He has been married twice:
He meets his wives; both loved, both loving, both
Jealous of one another. Time means growth,
And growth means nothing in Elysian life.
Fondling a changeless child, the flax-haired wife
Grieves on the brink of a remembered pond
Full of a dreamy sky. And, also blond,
But with a touch of tawny in the shade,
Feet up, knees clasped, on a stone balustrade
The other sits and raises a moist gaze
Toward the blue impenetrable haze.
How to begin? Which first to kiss? What toy
To give the babe? Does that small solemn boy
Know of the head-on crash which on a wild
March night killed both the mother and the child?
And she, the second love, with instep bare
In ballerina black, why does she wear
The earrings from the other’s jewels case?
And why does she avert her fierce young face?
For as we know from dreams it is so hard
To speak to our dear dead! They disregard
Our apprehension, queaziness and shame—
The awful sense that they’re not quite the same.
And our school chum killed in a distant war
Is not surprised to see us at his door,
And in a blend of jautiness and gloom
Points at the puddles in his basement room.
But who can teach the thoughts we should roll-call
When morning finds us marching to the wall
Under the stage direction of some goon
Political, some uninformed baboon?
We’ll think of matters only known to us—
Empires of rhyme, Indies of calculus;
Listen to the distant cocks crow, and discern
Upon the rough gray wall a rare wall fern;
And while our royal hands are being tied,
Taunt our inferiors, cheerfully deride
The dedicated imbeciles, and spit
Into their eyes just for the fun of it.
Nor can one help the exile, the old man
Dying in a motel, with the loud fan
Revolving in the torrid prairie night
And, from the outside, bits of colored light
Reaching his bed like dark hands from the past
Offering gems; and death is coming fast.
He suffocates and conjures in two tongues
The nebulae dilating in his lungs.
A wrench, a rift—that’s all one can foresee.
Maybe one finds le grand néant; maybe
Again one spirals from the tuber’s eye.
As you remarked the last time we went by
The Institute: “I really could not tell
The difference between this place and Hell.”
We heard cremationists guffaw and snort
At Grabermann’s denouncing the Retort
As detrimental to the birth of wraiths.
We all avoided criticizing faiths.
The great Starover Blue reviewed the role
Planets had played as landfalls of the soul.
The fate of beasts was pondered. A Chinese
Discanted on the etiquette at teas
With ancestors, and how far up to go.
I tore apart the fantasies of Poe,
And dealt with childhood memories of strange
Nacreous gleams beyond the adults’ range.
Among our auditors were a young priest
And an old Communist. Iph could at least
Compete with churches and the party line.
In later years it started to decline:
Buddhism took root. A medium smuggled in
Pale jellies and a floating mandolin.
Fra Karamazov, mumbling his inept
All is allowed, into some classes crept;
And to fulfill the fish wish of the womb,
A school of Freudians headed for the tomb.
That tasteless venture helped me in a way.
I learnt what to ignore in my survey
Of death’s abyss. And when we lost our child
I knew there would be nothing: no self-styled
Spirit would touch a keyboard of dry wood
To rap out her pet name; no phantom would
Rise gracefully to welcome you and me
In the dark garden, near the shagbark tree.
“What is that funny creaking—do you hear?”
“It is the shutter on the stairs, my dear.”
“If you’re not sleeping, let’s turn on the light.
I hate that wind! Let’s play some chess.” “All right.”
“I’m sure it’s not the shutter. There—again.”
“It is a tendril fingering the pane.”
“What glided down the roof and made that thud?”
“It is old winter tumbling in the mud.”
“And now what shall I do? My knight is pinned.”
Who rides so late in the night and the wind?
It is the writer’s grief. It is the wild
March wind. It is the father with his child.
Later came minutes, hours, whole days at last,
When she’d be absent from our thoughts, so fast
Did life, the wooly caterpillar run.
We went to Italy. Sprawled in the sun
On a white beach with other pink or brown
Americans. Flew back to our small town.
Found that my bunch of essays The Untamed
Seahorse was “universally accalimed”
(It sold three hundred copies in one year).
Again school started, and on hillsides, where
Wound distant roads, one saw the steady stream
Of carlights all returning to the dream
Of college education. You went on
Translating into French Marvell and Donne.
It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane
Lolita swept from Florida to Maine.
Mars glowed. Shahs married. Gloomy Russians spied.
Lang made your portrait. And one night I died.
The Crashaw Club had paid me to discuss
Why Poetry Is Meaningful To Us.
I gave my sermon, a dull thing but short.
As I was leaving in some haste, to thwart
The so-called “question period” at the end,
One of those peevish people who attend
Such talks only to say they disagree
Stood up and pointed with his pipe at me.
And then it happened—the attack, the trance,
Or one of my old fits. There sat by chance
A doctor in the front row. At his feet
Patly I fell. My heart had stopped to beat,
It seems, and several moments passed before
It heaved and went on trudging to a more
Conclusive destination. Give me now
Your full attention.
…………………………I can’t tell you how
I knew—but I did know that I had crossed
The border. Everything I loved was lost
But no aorta could report regret.
A sun of rubber was convulsed and set;
And blood-black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
I realized, of course, that it was made
Not of our atoms; that the sense behind
The scene was not our sense. In life, the mind
Of any man is quick to recognize
Natural shams, and then before his eyes
The reed becomes a bird, the knobby twig
An inchworm, and the cobra head, a big
Wickedly folded moth. But in the case
Of my white fountain what it did replace
Perceptually was something that, I felt,
Could be grasped only by whoever dwelt
In the strange world where I was a mere stray.
And presently I saw it melt away:
Though still unconscious, I was back on earth.
The tale I told provoked my doctor’s mirth.
He doubted very much that in the state
He found me in “one could hallucinate
Or dream in any sense. Later, perhaps,
but not during the actual collapse.
No, Mr. Shade.”
……………………But, Doctor, I was dead!
He smiled. “Not quite: just half a shade,” he said.
However, I demurred. In mind I kept
Replaying the whole thing. Again I stepped
Down from the platform, and felt strange and hot,
And saw that chap stand up, and toppled, not
Because a heckler pointed with his pipe,
But probably because the time was ripe
For just that bump and wobble on the part
Of a limp blimp, an old unstable heart.
My vision reeked with truth. It had the tone,
The quiddity and quaintness of its own
Reality. It was. As time went on,
Its constant vertical in triumph shone.
Often when troubled by the outer flare
Of street and strife, inward I’d turn, and there,
There in the background of my soul it stood,
Old Faithful! And its presence always would
Console me wonderfully. Then, one day,
I came across what seemed a twin display.
It was a story in a magazine
About a Mrs. Z. whose heart had been
Rubbed back to life by a prompt surgeon’s hand.
She told her interviewer of “The Land
Beyond the Veil” and the account contained
A hint of angels, and a glint of stained
Windows, and some soft music, and a choice
Of hymnal items, and her mother’s voice;
But at the end she mentioned a remote
Landscape, a hazy orchard—and I quote:
“Beyond that orchard through a kind of smoke
I glimpsed a tall white fountain—and awoke.”
If on some nameless island Captain Schmidt
Sees a new animal and captures it,
And if, a little later, Captain Smith
Brings back a skin, that island is no myth.
Our fountain was a signpost and a mark
Objectively enduring in the dark,
Strong as a bone, substantial as a tooth,
And almost vulgar in its robust truth!
The article was by Jim Coates. To Jim
Forthwith I wrote. Got her address from him.
Drove west three hundred miles to talk to her.
Arrived. Was met by an impassioned purr.
Saw that blue hair, those freckled hands, that rapt
Orchideous air—and knew that I was trapped.
“Who’d miss an opportunity to meet
A poet so distinguished?” It was sweet
Of me to come! I desperately tried
To ask my questions. They were brushed aside.
“Perhaps some other time.” The journalist
Still had her scribblings. I should not insist.
She plied me with fruit cake, turning it all
Into an idiotic social call.
“I can’t believe,” she said, “that it is you!
I loved your poem in the Blue Review.
That one about Mon Blon. I have a niece
Who’s climbed the Matternhorn. The other piece
I could not understand. I mean the sense.
Because, of course, the sound—But I’m so dense!”
She was. I might have persevered. I might
Have made her tell me more about the white
Fountain we both had seen “beyond the veil”
But if (I thought) I mentioned that detail
She’d pounce upon it as upon a fond
Affinity, a sacramental bond,
Uniting mystically her and me,
And in a jiffy our two souls would be
Brother and sister trembling on the brink
Of tender incest. “Well,” I said, “I think
It’s getting late. . . .”
…………………………I also called on Coates.
He was afraid he had mislaid her notes.
He took his article from a steel file:
“It’s accurate. I have not changed her style.
There’s one misprint—not that it matters much:
Mountain, not fountain. The majestic touch.”
Life Everlasting—based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Or correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.
It did not matter who they were. No sound,
No furtive light came from their involute
Abode, but there they were, aloof and mute,
Playing a game of worlds, promoting pawns
To ivory unicorns and ebon fauns;
Kindling a long life here, extinguishing
A short one there; killing a Balkan king;
Causing a chunk of ice formed on a high-
Flying airplane to plummet from the sky
And strike a farmer dead; hiding my keys,
Glasses or pipe. Coordinating these
Events and objects with remote events
And vanished objects. Making ornaments
Of accidents and possibilities.
Stormcoated, I strode in: Sybil, it is
My firm conviction—“Darling, shut the door.
Had a nice trip?” Splendid—but what is more
I have returned convinced that I can grope
My way to some—to some—”Yes, dear?” Faint hope.
Now I shall spy on beauty as none has
Spied on it yet. Now I shall cry out as
None has cried out. Now I shall try what none
Has tried. Now I shall do what none has done.
And speaking of this wonderful machine:
I’m puzzled by the difference between
Two methods of composing: A, the kind
Which goes on solely in the poet’s mind,
A testing of performing words, while he
Is soaping a third time one leg, and B,
The other kind, much more decorous, when
He’s in his study writing with a pen.
In method B the hand supports the thought,
The abstract battle is concretely fought.
The pen stops in mid-air, then swoops to bar
A canceled sunset or restore a star,
And thus it physically guides the phrase
Toward faint daylight through the inky maze.
But method A is agony! The brain
Is soon enclosed in a steel cap of pain.
A muse in overalls directs the drill
Which grinds and which no effort of the will
Can interrupt, while the automaton
Is taking off what he has just put on
Or walking briskly to the corner store
To buy the paper he has read before.
Why is it so? Is it, perhaps, because
In penless work there is no pen-poised pause
And one must use three hands at the same time,
Having to choose the necessary rhyme,
Hold the completed line before one’s eyes,
And keep in mind all the preceding tries?
Or is the process deeper with no desk
To prop the false and hoist the poetesque?
For there are those mysterious moments when
Too weary to delete, I drop my pen;
I ambulate—and by some mute command
The right word flutes and perches on my hand.
My best time is the morning; my preferred
Season, midsummer. I once overheard
Myself awakening while half of me
Still slept in bed. I tore my spirit free,
And caught up with myself—upon the lawn
Where clover leaves cupped the topaz of dawn,
And where Shade stood in nightshirt and one shoe.
And then I realized that this half too
Was fast asleep; both laughed and I awoke
Safe in my bed as day its eggshell broke,
And robins walked and stopped, and on the damp
Gemmed turf a brown shoe lay! My secret stamp,
The Shade impress, the mystery inborn.
Mirages, miracles, midsummer morn.
Since my biographer may be too staid
Or know too little to affirm that Shade
Shaved in his bath, here goes:
……………………………………….“He’d fixed a sort
Of hinge-and-screw affair, a steel support
Running across the tub to hold in place
The shaving mirror right before his face
And with his toe renewing tap-warmth, he’d
Sit like a king there, and like Marat bleed.”
The more I weigh, the less secure my skin;
In places it’s ridiculously thin;
Thus near the mouth: the space between its wick
And my grimace, invites the wicked nick.
Or this dewlap: some day I must set free
The Newport Frill inveterate in me.
My Adam’s apple is a prickly pear:
Now I shall speak of evil and despair
As none has spoken. Five, six, seven, eight,
Nine strokes are not enough. Ten. I palpate
Through strawberry-and-cream the gory mess
And find unchanged that patch of prickliness.
I have my doubts about the one-armed bloke
Who in commercials with one gliding stroke
Clears a smooth path of flesh from ear to chin,
Then wipes his faces and fondly tries his skin.
I’m in the class of fussy bimanists.
As a discreet ephebe in tights assists
A female in an acrobatic dance,
My left hand helps, and holds, and shifts its stance.
Now I shall speak . . . Better than any soap
Is the sensation for which poets hope
When inspiration and its icy blaze,
The sudden image, the immediate phrase
Over the skin a triple ripple send
Making the little hairs all stand on end
As in the enlarged animated scheme
Of whiskers mowed when held up by Our Cream.
Now I shall speak of evil as none has
Spoken before. I loathe such things as jazz;
The white-hosed moron torturing a black
Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac;
Primitivist folk-masks; progressive schools;
Music in supermarkets; swimming pools;
Brutes, bores, class-conscious Philistines, Freud, Marx,
Fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks.
And while the safety blade with scrape and screak
Travels across the country of my cheek,
Cars on the highway pass, and up the steep
Incline big trucks around my jawbone creep,
And now a silent liner docks, and now
Sunglassers tour Beirut, and now I plough
Old Zembla’s fields where my gray stubble grows,
And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose.
Man’s life as commentary to abstruse
Unfinished poem. Note for further use.
Dressing in all the rooms, I rhyme and roam
Throughout the house with, in my fist, a comb
Or a shoehorn, which turns into the spoon
I eat my egg with. In the afternoon
You drive me to the library. We dine
At half past six. And that odd muse of mine
My versipel, is with me everywhere,
In carrel and in car, and in my chair.
And all the time, and all the time, my love,
You too are there, beneath the word, above
The syllable, to underscore and stress
The vital rhythm. One heard a woman’s dress
Rustle in the days of yore. I’ve often caught
The sound and sense of your approaching thought.
And all in you is youth, and you make new,
By quoting them, old things I made for you.
Dim Gulf was my first book (free verse); Night Rote
Came next; then Hebe’s Cup, my final float
in that damp carnival, for now I term
Everything “Poems,” and no longer squirm.
(But this transparent thingum does require
Some moondrop title. Help me, Will! Pale Fire.)
Gently the day has passed in a sustained
Low hum of harmony. The brain is drained
And a brown ament, and the noun I meant
To use but did not, dry on the cement.
Maybe my sensual love for the consonne
D’appui, Echo’s fey child, is based upon
A feeling of fantastically planned,
Richly rhymed life.
…………………………I feel I understand
Existence, or at least a minute part
Of my existence, only through my art,
In terms of combinational delight;
And if my private universe scans right,
So does the verse of galaxies divine
Which I suspect is an iambic line.
I’m reasonably sure that we survive
And that my darling somewhere is alive,
As I am reasonably sure that I
Shall wake at six tomorrow, on July
The twenty-second, nineteen fifty-nine,
And that the day will probably be fine;
so this alarm clock let me set myself,
Yawn, and put back Shade’s “Poems” on their shelf.
But it’s not bedtime yet. The sun attains
Old Dr. Sutton’s last two windowpanes.
The man must be—what? Eighty? Eighty-two?
Was twice my age the year I married you.
Where are you? In the garden. I can see
Part of your shadow near the shagbark tree.
Somewhere horseshoes are being tossed. Click. Clunk.
(Leaning against its lamppost like a drunk.)
A dark Vanessa with a crimson band
Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand
And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white.
And through the flowing shade and ebbing light
A man, unheedful of the butterfly—
Some neighbor’s gardener, I guess—goes by
Trundling an empty barrow up the lane.
— Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire